The political dilemma: if not SLS, then what?
To many, that sounds like a simple argument: scrap the slow, outdated SLS and direct its $2.6 billion a year to new public-private partnerships like SpaceX’s Starship, which promises to revolutionize access to space. space.
Now imagine this argument from the perspective of a congressional representative from Alabama, home of the SLS: first cancel the SLS and fire tens of thousands of voters, then take that money that had previously enabled their voters to have good income, mortgages and a sense of pride from a high profile project and give instead to California and Texas, where SpaceX is located. You might get laughed out of the room.
This is the central dilemma for those who want to end SLS: how to create a politically viable alternative? The answer must go through the construction of a new coalition stronger and more motivated than the one currently invested in the status quo. This tends to be quite difficult and historically requires a major external event to predict massive political change.
The SLS could suffer a catastrophic failure – this is what ultimately ended the Space Shuttle program. Or perhaps a series of dramatic political realignments will drastically reduce the influence of the regions that benefit most from the current program. Or perhaps the incentives themselves could change. NASA has already transformed its approach to new programs through fixed-price commercial partnerships that better control costs and reward performance.
However, none of these provide clear avenues for those who wish to oppose the SLS. The reasons why NASA has the SLS remain far more compelling than the reasons not to have it. And meanwhile, on the eve of its first launch, NASA is prepares a long-term contract guaranteeing more than 24 SLS rockets until at least 2036. Political support for the SLS remains unwavering and is expected to continue.
For those who find this distressing, consider this: The legislators who make up the SLS political coalition zealously defend the interests of their constituents – and isn’t that the whole point of representative democracy? There is and will remain a tension in the American political system between local and national interests. Ideally, local interests align with national interests. And until there is an alternative to the political dynamics that represent the foundation of the SLS coalition, perhaps the best way forward is to focus on making the program more effective, more capable and more effective in achieving its goals. Don’t forget that ultimately NASA is about to return to the Moon. And what better than to have decades of moon rockets in production, waiting to take us there?